Trip Review: London, Paris and Points Between
Part 1: MCO to LHR & Hyatt Regency London – The Churchill
Part 2: The Power of Uber
Part 3: Riding Brittany Ferries Across the Channel
Part 4: Hyatt Paris Vendôme and American CDG-MCO
A Third Option Across the Channel
When the time came for us to leave England and head to France, we needed a better solution than flying from London to Paris. That’s because we intended to spend at least a day exploring the beaches of Normandy and the World War II history of the region before heading on to Versailles and then, at last, Paris.
Flights from London to Paris were indubitably affordable, coming in as low as £49 per person on British Airways and with the possibility of even cheaper travel coming available by way of a Euro budget carrier like Ryanair or EasyJet. These other carriers could potentially offer service from other UK cities like Bristol, which could have proven handy given how far west our trip took us on the isle.
The Chunnel was another option, of course, and riding National Rail back to London for continuing service on a train under the English Channel held some appeal. However, it still wouldn’t get us precisely where we needed to be, and we’d still incur a one-way drop charge for our rental car unless we made it all the way back to central London.
In my research, I noticed the dotted lines crossing the Channel on Google Maps and grew curious about their meaning. It became immediately clear that the lines connected port cities along the coasts of Britain and France. After a bit more research, I discovered one of the ferry companies responsible for running many of these routes.
Brittany Ferries offers service along a variety of routes heading to Spain and France from Plymouth, Poole and Portsmouth in Britain, as well as from Cork in Ireland. French landing points in Roscoff, St. Malo, Cherbourg, Caen and Le Havre line up almost perfectly with the very cities Allied forces sought to retake in the aftermath of the D-Day invasion.
Brittany operates a variety of different ferries. Its fast-craft, the Normandie Express, goes from Portsmouth to Cherbourg in just 3 hours. Incredibly, even this fast ferry includes space for vehicles. Two passengers and a car can ride from as little as £79 each way, while no-vehicle individual fares start at just £23 per person. Day journeys on a standard ferry, clocking in at about 7 hours from Portsmouth depending on your French destination, are marketed as perfect for a short getaway and presented with some of the same points of emphasis one might expect from a budget cruise line.
In the end, we chose purposely to take the slowest option, an overnight crossing from Portsmouth to St. Malo, a journey of 11 hours. We chose this option because it dropped us far enough west to ensure we’d not have to backtrack in order to see everything we wanted to see and because it saved us the expense of lodging for one night. The ferry offered service both for those traveling with vehicles and those without.
We dropped off our rental car in Portsmouth and planned to pick up a new one in St. Malo upon arrival. Our dropoff point for Europcar in Portsmouth was just a couple miles from the port terminal, while the pickup location for Avis in France was located inside the arrival terminal in St. Malo, making this transition a fairly smooth one.
Riding Brittany Ferries
Passengers book a base rate including a reclining seat in one of the several low-lit, quiet general seating areas located throughout the ship. The seats each provide substantial room and recline, and I wouldn’t be opposed to considering this option in the future. However, upgrading to a small cabin with 2 bunk buds and ensuite shower and restroom facilities is often an inexpensive upgrade. Larger cabins with outside views and cabins for four passengers are also available, as well as a small number of suites best suited to 3 or less passengers, are also available, but the inside cabins are perfectly sufficient for the overnight journey.
In the end, we booked two inside cabins, with two passengers in each, for a total of £252. At an average of £63 a piece, you could argue air travel would have been a more affordable option, but that doesn’t include the added benefit of slow-boat-as-hotel, saving a room or two of lodging for the evening.
Security at the port was minimal, making it easy to board quickly. A bus drove on-foot passengers the short distance from the terminal to the ship for boarding. It was fun to watch all manner of vehicles being loaded into the belly of the ship, all the way up to several fully loaded semi trucks.
After ascending a few flights of ramps, we emerged onto the ship. I was first given directions in French by one of the onboard greeters, who quickly changed to English when he noticed I hadn’t picked up on his instructions. Our rooms were located just a few paces away.
On board, both a full service and self service restaurant are available, as well as a bar/nightclub area and small café. We opted for the self service restaurant. Everything was a la carte, down to individual packets of butter, and tap water was served from a jug underneath the cashier’s desk. The food was perfectly serviceable, though, with a fairly tasty steak, garden salad and strawberry parfait serving as dinner. Not nearly as appetizing as what you’d find on even a budget-minded cruise line like Carnival, the food was still much better than the terrible restaurant we exhaustedly wandered into on our first night in London.
Pay Your Way
After dinner, we explored some of the duty free shops on board. A standard area of alcohols, cigarettes and a few souvenir knick-knacks were available, but the prices were nothing special. Both GBP and EUR were accepted as currency, however, which was convenient, and the adjacent convenience shop had a plentiful array of magazines, newspapers, candy and essentials that were more appealing.
Exploring the Ship
Our rooms came with access keys to the ship’s Wi-Fi network which, while speedier than I’d imagined, was limited to certain areas of the ship and not available within our rooms. I briefly stopped by the bar/nightclub and bore witness to a singer covering Katy Perry at a “bad karaoke” level of skill before retreating to what passed as the ship’s casino.
With just a few suspicious-looking slot machines, I was pleased to find one that offered standard video roulette. I bet on black twice, turning £1 into £4 and then turning £4 into a pint of Stella. The ship featured two movie theaters, each with about 30 seats and a perhaps 100-120” screen. Tickets were somewhere around £8 each, so I opted to watch a movie on my iPad back in the room before retiring for the evening.
Off to Bed, Early to Rise
The top bunk folds up toward the wall when not in use, opening the small room up somewhat. With the bunk down, I had to slouch in order to not hit my head when sitting on the bottom bunk. The bed came pre-made with sheets and a pillow located halfway between “home” and “Economy airplane seat” in comfort, which was good enough for a night. The shower and toilet facility were small, as could be imagined, but not much smaller than a typical inside cabin cruise ship bathroom would be.
Morning came too quickly, with a wake up call around 6:30AM for a 7AM debarkation. In reality, this resulted in everyone standing around with their luggage for about 30-45 minutes while crews already set to work stripping beds and cleaning rooms for the next journey. The ship was on a tight turnaround, but allowing guests to stay in their cabin until it was time for their floor to debark would have been a much more comfortable option.
Overall, I feel like Brittany Ferries offered a good value for our itinerary and is a worthwhile choice for any travelers seeking to jump from the UK to France’s Normandy area directly. Don’t expect any of the nicer frills associated with travel on cruise liners, or to save substantially versus air or train travel between the countries, but the pragmatic value of saving money on a night’s lodging while arriving precisely where we wanted to begin our next day made the ferry a great option for us.